D: Stephen Frears. DP: Danny Cohen. W: John Hodge (Based on David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins and My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong) Starring: Ben Foster/Chris O’Dowd/Jesse Plemmons/Dustin Hoffman/Guillaume Canet/Lee Pace/Elaine Cassidy/Laura Donnelly.
Oh the biopic. As I mentioned in my review of Straight Outta Compton the biopic has a tempestuous history that was birthed during the Hollywood studio era. Now biopics must justify their negotiation between truth and fiction as they endeavor to weave a cinematic narrative from a life or sequence of events or a chapter biopic (like the recent Life). The Program thankfully does not attempt to tackle the life of disgraced American cyclist Lance Armstrong, but rather his specific time racing in the Tour de France and his high profile career destruction.
The Program is in part based on the book by UK sports journalist David Walsh, played here by Chris O’Dowd, on his pursuit of Armstrong whose first win had him suspicious. The lawsuits against Armstrong by both his former cycling team members and sponsors also contributed to the script. The film’s focus on this specific period of his life from young racer to cancer victim to spokesman to winner to disgrace create a nice flow for the film and help it along in a story a majority of the audiences already know does not end well. You can feel screenwriter David Hodges (Trainspotting, The Beach) actively trying not to fall into biopic traps, he only does a little backstory on Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemmons). Yet there is a dynamic that is just lacking here, but I believe that’s the failure of the source material. We all know he was a cheat, so the film cannot build up any reveal, there isn’t any climax.
Director Stephen Frears whose long career has a lot of success has become a sort of hit and miss. Philomena was subtle and heartbreaking and done with a tender hand. This tender hand is misplaced here. The fusion of documentary footage or real coverage of Armstrong and the events doesn’t elevate the film, but rather makes me want to watch a documentary or read Walsh’s book more. There are beautiful shots of a cycling Armstrong, played by Ben Foster, one man against a vast trek. The story is just too big for the film, yet too concise as well.
The saving grace maybe Ben Foster as Armstrong. A sleeper actor for most I have been watching him since he first turned up on the Disney Channel at age fifteen in the series Flash Forward. He has done a tremendous amount of work including a brilliant turn in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma and held his own in Lone Survivor. He clearly committed his body to the part, even reportedly doping himself to understand performance enhancing drugs. Regardless of method what he nails is Armstrong’s charm, manipulation, and fierce will to lie to win. Who Armstrong is remains nebulous. O’Dowd is a good adversary and it’s nice to see him step out of comedy. Plemmons, from Friday Night Lights fame, does well, but is overshadowed by Foster as Armstrong. It must have the case in real life.
The Program at times feels like a made-for-television movie. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as there is fine work done there. But the disgraced athlete or the tragically lost one are biopic genres that for me feel like ones to be played at home. They are stories for the living room not the big stage. We all know how they end, which earns us the right to press pause and use the bathroom.